Israeli tanks struck a Syrian artillery launcher Monday after a stray mortar shell flew into Israel-held territory, the first direct clash between the neighbors since the Syrian uprising began nearly two years ago.The development came as the head of the newly formed opposition group the Syrian National Coalition visited Egypt’s capital, securing recognition of the alliance from the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The confrontation on the occupied Golan fueled new fears that the Syrian war could drag Israel into the violence, a scenario with grave consequences for the region. “We are closely monitoring what is happening and will respond appropriately. We will not allow our borders to be violated or our citizens to be fired upon,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech to foreign ambassadors.
Israeli political scientist Dore Gold, an informal adviser to Netanyahu, said neither Israel nor Syria has any interest in escalation. “I see no indication of Assad wanting to draw Israel in. But if violence comes from the Syrian army, or even forces operating in Syria that are affiliated with Al-Qaeda, Israel has to do what is necessary to make sure there’s no spillover into Israeli territory,” he said.
He described Israel’s reaction Monday as a “carefully calibrated response.”
A number of mortar shells have landed in the Golan in the past week. Israel responded for the first time Sunday, firing what it called a “warning shot” into Syria after a mortar shell landed near an Israeli military post.
In Monday’s incident, the military said it reported “direct hits” on an artillery launcher after another shell struck the Golan. It would not say whether the launcher belonged to the Syrian army, saying only it had targeted the “source of fire.”
The incident began when Syrian military units were shelling gunmen in the twin Syrian villages of Bariqa and Bir Ajam, several hundred meters from Israeli-held territory. An Associated Press photographer on the Golan side saw gunmen, presumably rebels, running as explosions shook the village from the shelling by Syrian army mobile artillery visible about 2 kilometers away.
The rebels fired back with automatic weapons and then fled, running toward the Golan border and taking refuge under some trees. A few minutes later, the rebels made their way back to the village.
Bursts of artillery fire from the Syrian forces could be heard every few minutes, and about a half-hour later, the Syrian shell struck the Golan, less than 100 meters from an Israeli position. Israeli forces quickly opened fire, and a plume of smoke billowed from one of the tanks’ guns.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-Assad group that relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said three rebel fighters were killed in clashes with the Syrian army in Bir Ajam.
The state-run news agency SANA has not reported on the fighting in the area.
Violence also continued on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, as a Syrian fighter jet bombed a rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain three times, killing 15 to 20 people, according to a Turkish official. Separately, eight wounded Syrians died in Turkey, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to reporters in Rome, said Ankara had formally protested the bombings near the border, and reported the incident to NATO allies and to the U.N. Security Council.
Meanwhile, Syria’s newly named opposition leader Ahmad Moaz Khatib, a soft-spoken cleric backed by Washington and the Gulf Arab states, flew to Cairo to seek the Arab League’s blessing for the new assembly, the day after he was unanimously elected to lead it.
His assembly was recognized by the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
“The states of the council announce recognizing the National Coalition ... as the legitimate representative of the brotherly Syrian people,” GCC chief Abdul-Latif al-Zayani said.
Washington said it would back it “as it charts a course toward the end of Assad’s bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future.”
Khatib met Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby before the gathering of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo. European foreign ministers are due to join them Tuesday.
A League official said any recognition of the opposition would probably avoid describing it as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, because some Arab states were still reluctant to jettison Assad.
“There are still Arab states like Iraq and Lebanon that are not fully supportive of the Syrian revolt,” the official said, also on condition he not be identified.
Russia urged the new body to negotiate and to reject outside meddling, while Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called on all parties to initiate “a political transition process guided by the Syrian people.”
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